For parents who bring their children to church, youth group and Bible study, week after week year after year, the idea that they might abandon their faith in college is troubling. But research shows that nearly 50 percent of Christian teens fail to connect with a faith community after high school.
Drawing on six years of research with more than a dozen Christian teenagers from New England, Dr. Cheryl Crawford, a 1977 graduate of Gordon who is now an assistant professor of youth ministry at Azusa Pacific University in California, shared her findings recently on effective ways to develop a young person’s faith. Nearly 180 youth pastors and 40 parents from throughout the greater Boston area came to Gordon College on October 28 to hear Crawford’s lectures entitled, “Will Your Kids Have Faith after High school?”
“People often say that we’re losing kids from the church,” said professor Mark Cannister, co-chair of the Christian Ministries department. “But it’s always been difficult for our youth to get connected, so when they graduate from high school, the challenge is even greater. That’s why we wanted to bring Cheryl back to campus.”
According to Crawford’s findings, a lasting connection to faith is positively influenced by five factors: identity development, time management to allow for reflection, meaningful conversations, the role of a father figure who exemplifies his Christian faith, and relationships with members of the church community.
While these factors contribute positively to the continued pursuit of faith after high school, Crawford sees the lack of identity formation as primary to why students wane when they reach college.
“The kids in the study who really sidelined their faith in college were the ones who hadn’t done the identity work in high school,” said Crawford. “They were so busy with activities and distracted by technology that they went from experience to experience without ever processing.”
These students also reported feeling extreme loneliness during their transition to college. The response was either to get involved in campus ministry or enter the party scene. Their decision to pursue faith or the party scene was typically made in the first two weeks of college and persisted through the students four years of college.
Nearly 60 percent of Crawford’s 15 students chose what they referred to as, “the party scene.” “I don’t know how you meet friends if you don’t party,” one student told Crawford.
Crawford’s main advice to parents and youth leaders was to help students connect with an individual from the college’s ministry department prior to move-in day. “If someone on campus knows them when no one else does, they’re more likely to seek out that connection and get involved in ministry,” said Crawford.
Though the majority of students in Crawford’s study did not involve themselves in ministry, nearly all of them described their faith as ‘sidelined.’ Most of them reported statements such as, “we’ll pick up our faith again when we get married and have kids.”
For Crawford this is concerning. “They’re missing 5–11 years of spiritual growth,” she said. “They’ve checked out for so long that when they do have kids and check back in, their faith is shallow.”
For parents listening to Crawford, many observed that college and university life is different from what it was when they attended. “I wouldn’t have thought about many of the things that Cheryl brought up,” said Ariana McDonough of Hamilton and a mother of four children. “I wouldn’t have thought about loneliness or the need for parents to be so involved in their child’s college experience because that wasn’t my own experience.”
Still others saw Crawford’s advice as important while their children are still young. “My kids are only six and nine but I’ve realized how important it is to have them connecting with other adults in the church early on,” said Caitlyn Thomas of Beverly.
While Crawford is glad for opportunities to share her research, she says she’ll continue her study because of its important implications as young people in process.
“Their stories aren’t over yet,” she said. “I need to know what happens as they get married and have families of their own.”